Category Archives: Brennan Maeve

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

A couple of years ago I read The Springs of Affection, a beautifully affecting collection of stories by the Irish writer and journalist Maeve Brennan. What struck me most about those stories was the strong sense of emotional dislocation they conveyed, particularly though their focus on lonely, unhappy individuals, often trapped in loveless marriages. The characters seemed caught in a form of stasis, unable to reach out to one another while unspoken bitterness and resentment festered away and remained unchecked.  

There is a similar air of bitterness and resentment in The Visitor, a novella that was published posthumously in 2000 following its discovery in publishing archives that had been acquired by the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s. It is not known when Brennan first started work on The Visitor, but she is thought to have finished it in the mid-1940s. As such, it is one of her earliest works of fiction, all the more astonishing considering its power and precision – it’s remarkably accomplished for such an early piece.

As the novella opens, twenty-two-year-old Anastasia King is returning to her childhood home in Dublin, a house owned by her paternal grandmother, Mrs King. When Anastasia was sixteen, her mother and father split up, the mother fleeing to Paris and subsequently sending for Anastasia to join her there. As a consequence, Anastasia has been living in Paris for six years. Now both of Anastasia’s parents are dead, leaving the girl with no remaining family other than Mrs King – hence Anastasia’s belief that she will be able to live with her grandmother (and the latter’s elderly housekeeper, Katherine) going forward.

Mrs King, however, has a different view of the situation. She still blames Anastasia’s mother for the break-up of her son’s marriage, thereby bringing shame and disgrace on her son and the King family as a whole. Anastasia is also guilty of desertion in her grandmother’s eyes, having followed her mother to Paris to take up residence away from her father. As such, Mrs King is cold and remote in her receipt of Anastasia in the family home, making it clear that she considers the visit a temporary one, not a permanent arrangement.

Mrs K is a brilliant creation – cold, direct, monstrous and self-centred. She shows precious little warmth or compassion towards Anastasia who is recently bereaved. What I find particularly interesting about this elderly lady is how she views Anastasia both as an adult and as a child, choosing whichever of these states suits her best on each particular occasion.

For instance, Mrs King condemns Anastasia for having followed her mother to Paris, thereby deserting her father – Mrs King’s precious son – in the process. As far as Mrs King sees it, Anastasia was an adult at sixteen, someone who knew full well what she was doing in choosing to live with her mother.

Mrs King said in her gentle voice, “You know, Anastasia, you made a serious choice when you decided to stay with your mother in Paris. You were sixteen then, not a child. You knew what she had done. You were aware of the effect it was having on your father.” (p. 16)

And yet, Mrs King repeatedly refers to Anastasia as a child during their blunt conversations following the young woman’s return – “Now, child, get along to your bed. It’s very late. You’ll be dead tired in the morning.”— thereby emphasising her own dominance in the relationship. This vacillation between the positioning of her granddaughter as an adult or a child, depending on whichever of these suits her best at the time, is just one way in which Mrs King seeks to belittle Anastasia, closing off any expectations of comfort or affection.

As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Mrs King played a major part in her daughter-in-law’s defection. When Anastasia’s parents were living together with Mrs King, there was an air of tension in the Dublin house; Anastasia’s mother felt belittled by her mother-in-law’s spiteful actions, a form of passive-aggressive behaviour or ‘campaign of cruelty’ as Clare Boylan neatly terms it in her introduction to the novella.

As in The Springs of Affection, Brennan excels in conveying the sense of isolation or separateness that can arise between family members occupying the same dwelling. Rather than living together and sharing a sense of connectedness, Anastasia and Mrs King remain emotionally distanced from one another in the unwelcoming, lifeless house.

The Christmas season passed. The days came and went, bringing nothing. There was a listlessness about the house but had seemed absent in the days before Christmas. The grandmother sat daily by the fire and Anastasia seldom joined her. With the growing of the year their separate lives seemed to dwindle away in shyness, and the house enclosed them aloofly, like a strange house that had not known them when they were happier. (p. 44)

The concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are important themes in Brennan’s fiction, and the associations these notions spark can be painful and complex.

Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. […] It is a silly creature that tries to get a smile from even the most familiar and loving shadow. Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward. (p. 8)

The novella’s mood is enhanced by Brennan’s use of imagery and sounds to heighten the unsettling atmosphere, the ghostly silence in the grandmother’s house, broken only by the crackling of the fire or the scrape of a knife across a slice of toast. There is some wonderful descriptive writing here, imagery to send a shiver down the spine.

The trees around Noon Square grew larger, as daylight faded. Darkness stole out of the thickening trees and slurred the thin iron railings around the houses, and spread quickly across the front gardens, making the grass go black and taking the colour from the flowers. The darkness of night fell on the green park in the middle of the square, and rose fast to envelop the tall patient houses all around. The street lamps drew flats circles of light around them and settled down for the night. (p. 13)

As the novella builds towards its unnerving conclusion, we begin to see another side to Anastasia’s personality, one that reveals a degree of selfishness or ambivalence towards the wishes of others. I’ll leave to to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book (which I hope you do). Suffice it to say that this plotline involves an old friend of Mrs King’s – an elderly spinster named Miss Kilbride, who appeals to Anastasia for help with an act of compassion. Miss Kilbride has also suffered at the hands of an embittered and jealous family member – in this instance her mother – which adds a resonance with the novella’s main storyline.   

The Visitor is achingly sad yet beautifully written, the kind of story that highlights just how destructive family relationships can be when grievances and feelings of selfishness are allowed to putrefy and fester. Heaven Ali has also written about this book; and as ever, her insightful post is well worth reading. Hopefully my piece will expand the conversation around this lesser-known gem and introduce others to Maeve Brennan, a writer who deserves to be so much better-known.

My copy of The Visitor was published by New Island Books; personal copy.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan

I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, only having read The Springs of Affection, a brilliant collection of her Dublin stories from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s. Virtually all of these twenty-one stories were first published by The New Yorker magazine where Brennan worked as a columnist and reviewer.

While I enjoy reading short stories, I often find them difficult to discuss, particularly if there are no apparent connections or common themes across the individual pieces. However, in this case, the situation is somewhat different as almost all of these stories are linked by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. Moreover, the stories have been collated by theme rather than order of publication, an approach which adds depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters as they move from one story to another.

The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces which offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time in spite of the political turbulence of the early 1920s. (In one of these stories, The Day We Got Our Own Back, a group of men carrying revolvers come to the house in search of Maeve’s father, a known Republican who has gone into hiding in revolt against the Irish Free State.)

Other pieces in this section paint a picture of a normal family life, complete with the usual tensions between siblings and others. In The Old Man of the Sea, Maeve’s mother feels sorry for an old man who comes to the door with an enormous basket of apples, so she buys two dozen, just to be charitable. But then the man returns the same time the following week with another two dozen apples for Mrs Brennan, all bagged up and ready to be handed over in exchange for payment. As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mrs B. to refuse the apples until things come to a head in the most embarrassing of manners. This is a lovely story laced with warmth and humour.

The second series of stories feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, a situation which appears to have developed over several years. The opening piece – A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances – captures the state of this couple’s relationship in a nutshell as they try to score points off one other in the pettiest of ways.

Some of the Derdon stories look back to happier times, the couple’s courtship and the early years of their marriage when they were young and relatively carefree, enjoying walks together in St Stephens Green park. Sadly, this sense of freedom and gaiety was relatively short-lived, and the cracks in their marriage soon started to appear.

In time, we learn that the Derdons have one grown-up son, John, who – much to Rose’s dismay – has left home to join the priesthood. She feels his absence very deeply. In her heart of hearts, Rose realises that she has lost her beloved John forever, but this doesn’t stop her from fantasising about his return every now and again, convincing herself that she will see him walking down their road at any minute.

But of course he wasn’t coming, and he wouldn’t be coming, and the excitement inside her would flatten out and stupefy her with its weight, and her disappointment and humiliation at being made a fool of would be as cruel as though what she had felt had really been hope and not what it was, the delirium of loss. (p.154)

Shut out of the marriage by Rose’s devotion to John, Hubert broods on what he considers to be his wife’s failings: her shyness and lack of confidence in social situations; her indecisiveness and ambivalence in various domestic matters; and her secrecy and concealment of certain things for no apparent reason.

He never could understand her—her secrecy, her furtiveness, her way of stopping what she was doing and running to do something else the minute he came into the room, as though what she was doing was forbidden to her. She was afraid of him, and she never made any attempt to control the fear, no matter what he said to her. All he ever said to her was that she ought to try to take things easy, try to take life easier—things like that, that would reassure her. But she was afraid of him, and that was the whole of the difficulty, and that is what defeated him at every turn, and that is why he gradually, or finally—he could not have told how it happened—gave up any attempt to get on any kind of terms with her. (p. 77)

When viewed together, these stories form a devastating picture of two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. While nothing ever comes to a confrontational head, there is a real sense of bitterness and resentment between husband and wife, the simmering tensions proving particularly destructive as they are rarely aired or spoken about directly.

The final set of stories feature another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. The Bagots are younger than the Derdons, and they have two daughters – Lily aged nine, and Margaret, aged seven. As with the Derdons, there are hints that the Bagots were happy in the early days of their marriage, enjoying jokes together just like any other couple. But now Martin sleeps on his own in the back bedroom, an arrangement initially prompted by his unsociable working hours but now maintained through his own preference. What emerges is a picture of a man who longs to get away from his immediate family whom he considers to be a burden.

As the Bagot stories progress, we learn that there was another child in the family before the arrival of the two girls – a boy who died when he was just three days old. Naturally, Delia was distraught at the time, leaving Martin unable to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. This is the source of the fault line in their marriage, an unspoken rift that has been allowed to fester over the years.

She knew things were not as they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now that the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see. Or perhaps he saw them and kept silent out of charity, or out of despair, or out of a hope that they would vanish if no one paid any attention to them. (pp. 247-248)

While this all might sound very bleak, there is a little more hope for the Bagots than the Deardons. Their relationship lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage, and it is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness too. A visit from an elderly Bishop and old family friend puts Delia back in touch with herself in a manner that boosts her sense of peace and harmony, although we never see if this enables her to reconnect with Martin in any meaningful way. There are glimpses of jet-black humour too, especially towards the end of the collection.

The final story, The Springs of Affection, is probably worth the cover price alone, focusing as it does on Martin’s spiteful twin sister, Min, who kept house for him in Dublin following Delia’s sudden death (we are now several years down the line). From the opening passages, it is clear that Min resented Delia from the outset, for stealing Martin away from her and the rest of the Bagot family. Now that Martin is also dead, the elderly Min has returned to her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions.

What sets this collection apart from many others I’ve read recently is the strong sense of disconnection/emotional turbulence conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning which gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece. Brennan’s prose is simple and straightforward yet beautifully precise – her descriptions of various aspects of the terraced house in Ranelagh are both clean and graceful.

This is a terrific collection of stories with much to recommend it, particularly for lovers of perceptive character-driven fiction in an understated style.

My copy of The Springs of Affection was published by Counterpoint.